By Manning Harris
The Alliance Theatre’s “Next to Normal” is haunting and powerful, perfectly cast and executed. It’s the most riveting, don’t-miss play at the Alliance since “August: Osage County.” It will only run through November 11, and if you love great theatre, stop reading this review and go reserve your seats. Then come back.
Sometimes it’s hard for those of us who love theatre to avoid making fools of ourselves; so we just stop trying, especially when a play comes along that has such passion, pathos, and courage that you can feel an audience tingling with excitement and anticipation.
Interestingly, both “August” and “Next to Normal” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. “Next to Normal” is a musical—quite rare for musicals to win.
It is a musical drama about mental illness (that’s right) and a “society incapacitated by fast-paced living, high-reaching goals, and simulated social contacts,” as Vassela Warner writes in the program notes, and the accompanying stresses on a suburban family.
Diana Goodman (Catherine Porter) has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and her husband Dan (Bob Gaynor) and son and daughter (Cary Tedder and Lyndsay Ricketson) are doing their best to cope. This is largely a play about disconnection. Diana sings “You Don’t Know” to her well-meaning husband, who tells her he understands, sort of, what she’s going through. (By the way, there’s a lot of medication flying around this play—the pharmaceutical industry has a field day.) Tennessee Williams once spoke of how we’re “activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness to what is going on in each other’s hearts.” He would have understood “Next to Normal” very well.
I can’t reveal certain important aspects of the plot and characters; it would rob you of the excitement of discovery. But I can talk with pleasure about this superb cast, directed with precision and subtlety by Scott Schwartz. Incidentally, this show played with great acclaim on Broadway from April 2009 to January 2011, winning three Tony Awards, one of which was for Alice Ripley’s much lauded portrayal of Diana. Tom Kitt’s music and Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics are glorious and won for Best Original Score. The music, directed here by Boko Suzuki, sings, rocks, and defies classification. Call it compelling. By the way, Kevin Rigdon’s set is to die for. Michael Jenkinson’s choreography is lovely.
Back to the cast: Ms. Porter triumphs in this dream role (or should I say nightmare?) that only a dynamite actress-singer could perform. Mr. Gaynor is powerful and moving, especially when he must be both father and mother (an impossible task) to his daughter Natalie, who gives a whole new dimension to teenage angst. Ms. Ricketson is up to the challenge, her Natalie finally realizing that her gentle, long-suffering boyfriend Henry, beautifully played by Jordan Craig, is indeed “Perfect for You,” as he has said. We should all have a kind, empathetic Henry in our lives: despite his pot-smoking, the most balanced person onstage.
Cary Tedder as Gabe, the son, is outstanding: a fine singer/actor who also has a fluidity of movement and gesture that serves him well in this pivotal role. Finally, Googie Uterhardt does a masterful job representing the medical profession, bringing both needed comedy and a touching sense of hopelessness in the face of Diana’s relentless, malleable disease.
“Next to Normal” resonates on so many levels. It’s a work of art that reveals the resilience of us human beings. I’m not at all hesitant to tell you I’d like to see it again. Don’t miss.
For tickets and information, visit www.alliancetheatre.com.